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BOOK REVIEW: THE OVERCOAT by Ruskin Bond

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Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

    Ruskin Bond is one of India’s best known authors. He was born in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh in 1934. He wrote his first novel, The Room on the Roof, at the age of 17. Some years later, it won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957.

    Bond spent his growing years in Jamnagar, Dehradun, Delhi and Shimla, all of which occupy a central place in his writing. After a four year stint in London and Channel Islands in the early 1950s, Bond returned to India and made Landour, Mussoorie, his home.

    A prolific writer, Bond has written several books, short stories, poems and essays. He won the Sahitya Academy Award in 1993 and was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1999.

    The story Overcoat is set up in a hill station. It’s about a merry encounter with a ghost. And here it goes.

    The weather was clear and frosty. But as the noon came up over the Himalayan peaks, I could see patches of snow still lay on the roads of the hill station. I would have been quite happy in bed, with a book and a hot-water bottle by my side, but I’d promised the Kapadias that I’d go to their party, and I felt it would be churlish of me to stay away at the last moment. So I padded up myself before setting out for Kapadias on the moonlit road.

    It was a walk of just over a mile to the Kapadias’ house. I had covered about half the distance, when I saw a girl standing in the middle of the road.

    She must have been sixteen or seventeen. But she looked rather old-fashioned, with long hair hanging up to her waist, and a flouncy sequined dress, pink and lavender in colour that reminded me of the photos, in my grandmother’s family album. When I went closer, I noticed she had lovely eyes and a winning smile.

    ‘Good evening,’ I said. ‘It’s a cold night to be out.’

    ‘Are you going to the party?’ she asked.

    ‘That’s right. And I can see from your lovely dress that you too are going. Come along, we’re nearly there.’

    She fell into steps beside me as she commenced walking. We soon saw lights from the Kapadias’ house shining brightly through the deodars. The girl told me her name was Julie. I hadn’t seen her before, but then, I’d only been in the hill station for a few months.

    There was quite a crowd at the party, but no one seemed to know Julie. Everyone thought she was a friend of mine. I did not deny it either. Obviously, she was someone who was feeling lonely and wanted to be friendly with people. And she was certainly enjoying herself. I did not see her do much of eating or drinking, but she flitted from one group to another, talking, listening laughing and enjoying. When the music began, she started dancing and continued alone, or with partners, for it didn’t matter to her, as she was completely wrapped up in music.

    It was almost midnight when I got up to go. I had drank a fair amount of punch, and was ready for bed. As I was saying goodnight to my hosts and wishing everyone a merry Christmas, Julie slipped her arm into mine and said she too would be going home.

    When we were outside, I asked, ‘Where do you live Julie?’

    ‘At Wolfsburn,’ she said. ‘Right at the top of the hill.’

    ‘There’s a cold wind,’ I said. ‘And although your dress is beautiful, it doesn’t look very warm. Here, you’d better wear my overcoat. I’ve plenty of protection.’

    She did not protest, and allowed me to slip my overcoat over her shoulders. Then we started walking back home. But I did not have to escort her all the way. At about the spot where we had met, she said, ‘There’s a shortcut from here. I’ll just scramble up the hillside.’

    ‘Do you know it well?’ I asked. ‘It’s a very narrow path.’

    ‘Oh, I know every stone on the path. I use it all the time. And besides, it’s really a bright night.’

    ‘Well, keep the coat on,’ I said. ‘I can collect it tomorrow.’

    She hesitated for a moment, then smiled and nodded. She then disappeared up the hill, and I went home alone.

    The next day, I walked up to Wolfsburn. I crossed a little brook, from which the house had probably got its name, and entered, an open iron gate. But little had remained of the house. Just a roofless ruin, a pile of stones, a shattered chimney, a few Doric pillars where a veranda had once stood.

    Had Julie played a joke on me? Or had I found the wrong house?

    I walked around the hill, to the mission house where the Taylors live and asked old Mrs Taylor if she knew a girl named Julie.

    ‘No I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘Where does she live?’

    ‘At Wolfsburn, I was told. But the house is just a ruin.’

    ‘Nobody has lived at Wolfsburn for over forty years, the Mackinnons once lived there. One of the old families who settled here. But when their girl died …’ She stopped with that and gave me a queer look. ‘I think her name was Julie … Anyway, when she died, they sold the house and went away. No one ever lived in it again, and it fell into decay. But it couldn’t be the same Julie you’re looking for. She died of consumption (Tuberculosis)—there wasn’t much you could do about it in those days. Her grave is in the cemetery, just down the road.’

    I thanked Mrs Taylor and walked slowly down the road, to the cemetery. Not really wanting to know any more, but propelled forward almost against my will.

    It was a small cemetery under the deodars. You could see the eternal snows of the Himalayas standing out against the pristine blue sky. Here lay the bones of forgotten empire-builders—soldiers, merchants, adventurers, their wives and children. It did not take me long to find Julie’s grave. It had a simple headstone with her name clearly outlined on it:

Julie Mackinnon

1923-39

‘With us one moment,

Taken the next,

Gone to her Maker,

Gone to her rest.’

    Although, many monsoons had swept across the cemetery, wearing down the stones, but they had not touched this little tombstone.

    I was turning to leave, when I got a glimpse of something familiar behind the headstone. I walked around to where it lay.

    Neatly folded on the grass was my overcoat.

    There was no thank-you note. But something soft and invisible brushed against my cheek, and I knew someone was trying to thank me. And that was no one else but Julie … Julie’s soul.

    It is an interesting story and I would give this story seven out of ten.

By Kamlesh Tripathi

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https://kamleshsujata.wordpress.com

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